How To Container Grow Eggplant Plants

By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

Eggplants are versatile fruits that belong to the nightshade family along with tomatoes and other fruits. Most are heavy, dense fruits on medium to large sized bushes which wouldn’t be appropriate for container grown eggplant. There are cultivars, however, that have been developed to be compact as an answer to the growing number of small space gardeners. These smaller plants provide a means to growing eggplant in containers.

Container Grown Eggplant

Modern breeding programs are answering the call of the limited space gardener. With the rise of upside down gardening, traditional container gardening has expanded its previous barriers. Eggplants in pots are as easy to grow as tomatoes in pots. They need large enough containers to support the roots of such a heavy plant, a well draining medium, extra food and consistent water and, of course, the right container. Container grown eggplant require large pots to facilitate their growth and provide room for the small bushes.

How to Container Grow Eggplant

One of the most important elements of container grown eggplant is the container. Choose a large pot with a 5-gallon (18 L.) capacity. Growing eggplant in containers requires 12 to 14 inches (30-35 cm.) of space per plant or three plants can be placed in a 20-inch (50 cm.) container. Unglazed pots dry out more quickly than glazed pots, but they also allow the evaporation of excess moisture. If you remember to water, choose the unglazed pot. If you are a forgetful waterer, choose the glazed pots. Make certain there are large, unblocked drainage holes.

Eggplant starts are the best way to go unless you live in a sunny climate as they will give you a jump start on the growing season. The best medium for container grown eggplant is two parts good quality potting soil and one part sand. This ensures adequate nutrients and water retention while encouraging draining of excess moisture.

Plant the eggplant at the same level they were in their nursery pots and put a handful of time release fertilizer in the hole at the time of planting. Water the pots well and install a small support system, like a tomato cage.

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Growing Eggplant in Containers

This is another installment about growing vegetables in containers. Click on Gardening Tutorials to see more in the series.

It’s safe to say I am a big fan of eggplant. With varieties that produce low calorie, high fiber fruits in all sizes, shapes, and colors – what’s not to like? For the last few years I have been experimenting with growing eggplant in containers. I grow them in the ground too in the vegetable garden, but growing in containers is easy, and a great way to have eggplant even if you don’t have a garden plot.

Hansel eggplant growing in container (click on any image to enlarge)

I can think of several advantages to growing eggplant this way. For one thing, they generally produce earlier. Eggplants love heat, and containers warm up faster in spring than garden soil does. For folks in colder climates or areas with short growing seasons, this can be a real advantage. Also, eggplant are susceptible to several diseases, including verticillium wilt, blights, and viruses. By growing in containers with good quality disease-free potting soil these soil borne problems can be avoided.

closeup of Hansel eggplants

The only real disadvantage is one that applies to growing anything in a container, and that is the watering issue. Containers need frequent watering in hot weather, at least daily and sometimes more than once a day. Letting the plants dry out will stress the plants and reduce the overall yield.

Fairy Tale eggplant in container

To successfully grow eggplant in a container, I start with one that is at least 12 inches in diameter. I have found that larger containers up to 16 inches in diameter will grow larger plants, and therefore more fruit. Self-watering containers are great for growing eggplant, and help with the watering issue by providing a reservoir of water for the plant to draw on. Another type of container that is becoming increasingly popular with gardeners is Grow Pots (or Smart Pots). I will be testing peppers and eggplants in Smart Pots this year, and comparing them with plants grown in plastic containers.

closeup of Fairy Tale eggplants

Eggplant is a pretty heavy feeder, so I use a good quality potting soil that has plenty of organic material in it. I also add a little compost to the mix, and some organic, slow release fertilizer (I like Espoma Tomato-Tone). That regimen has worked well for me the last few years, resulting in lots of tasty eggplant.

handful of Hansel eggplant

There are many eggplant varieties that do particularly well in containers. Two of my favorites are Hansel and Fairy Tale, which also happen to be All-America Selections. Gretel is another AAS winner that is good in containers and has slender white fruits.

Fairy Tale eggplants in 5″ bowl

Both Hansel and Fairy Tale bear a multitude of tasty eggplants over the growing season. This year I’m also growing Millionaire and Pot Black in containers. Millionaire is a widely available long slender purple Japanese type, while Pot Black is a new variety that produces small round purple fruits and was bred especially for container culture.

Eggplant is pretty versatile in the kitchen. It regularly plays a starring role here in stir fries and in such dishes as my Grilled Eggplant Parmesan and Grilled Eggplant with Tahini Yogurt Sauce. Grilling eggplant is a great way to prepare some of the smaller fruited varieties. When Fairy Tale is grilled, the flesh almost melts in your mouth.

Grilled Eggplant with Tahini Yogurt Sauce

Growing eggplant in containers is an easy way to add this wonderful vegetable to your own gardening repertoire, if you’re not already growing it. And if you’re not growing eggplants yourself from seed, your local garden center should be able to supply you with all the plants and supplies you need.

Where to Position Containers

A striking corten steel container positioned in a colourful border within our 2018 RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden.

The most common place for containers is on a patio or other paved space, where it is particularly prominent. There are plenty of other places where containers can be positioned try a pair of planted containers on either side of the front door, for example.

Planted containers can also make a fantastic feature within your flower beds, adding year-round interest even when your planting dies back in winter. With the wide variety of pots available, you could select pots to match the colour scheme of your planting, or choose an aged-looking container that will merge into your garden as if there for a thousand years! A single, large statement pot with a tree or large shrub can make a real impact in this way – underplant it carefully to blend the pot into the border.

If you want to create a real wow factor, group three or five complementary pots together. If you have a shady corner, try classic terracotta pots together with different ferns to bring life and movement. Don’t be afraid to try a container tilted on its side to add quirky interest, or even broken containers artfully arranged – perfect for planting alpines.

Five Great Places for Containers

1. On your patio, as a specimen feature plant

2. As a matching pair to frame a door

3. Within your flower border, carefully underplanted

4. As an artistically arranged group, with complementary pot colours

5. Leading up the side of garden steps

Almost anything can serve as a container, as long as it is clean and with sufficient drainage.

Growing Eggplant in your Garden

Growing Eggplant in your Garden

The plots of standard, open-pollinated vegetables in my grandparents’ garden were year to year, as predictable as sunrise and sunset. Tradition has its place in gardening, but there comes a time when we must be adventurous and attempt something new. (I well remember the daring sense of exoticism when my grandfather planted a hybrid dwarf watermelon, not from saved seed, but specially ordered from the Burpee catalog.) Each year I grow at least one untried plant, which is how I came to have eggplants in my garden. Among the edibles and ornamentals, the striking colors and shapes of new eggplant cultivars have much to offer in both the garden and kitchen.

Deep purple, pink, lavender and white eggplants (Solanum melongena) are relatively recent introductions to northern vegetable gardens, but their ancestors have been growing about the back hills of Africa, India, and China for centuries. And despite the mythology of their poisonous effects (see “A Shady Past”, right), eggplants, particularly their skins, contain substantial amounts of antioxidant phenolic compounds, cancer-fighting elements that gobble up free-radical scavengers in the bloodstream. Thus these once feared fruits actually promote good health.

Of course, gardeners need to feed their souls as well as their bodies, and the voluptuous beauty of eggplants is reason enough to include them in planting plans. Their shapes range from small grape-sized fruits to classic large globes, in colors from the familiar deep purple through mauve, pink, lime, white and striped. Despite their size, eggplants are classified as berry fruits each one grows with a spiny cap called a calyx. All have both male and female characteristics and are self-pollinating. As well, they all have seeds that swell and darken as the fruits grow large and mature. To avoid seedy fruit, harvest them when they’re smaller and slightly immature.

A shady past

American president Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), an innovative horticulturist, is credited with introducing the edible eggplant to North America, and it continues to be grown in his restored garden at Monticello, Virginia.

These striking yet misunderstood vegetables are cousins to tomatoes and potatoes (all members of the Solanaceae family), and are related to poisonous jimson weed (Datura stramonium) and belladonna (Atropa bella-donna), a.k.a. deadly nightshade. Solanum is derived from the Latin word solamen, meaning “quieting,” referring to the soporific qualities of some nightshade plants. Consequently, eggplant species were historically grown as ornamental garden plants, enjoyed for their vibrant violet flowers followed by deeply tinted fruits, but kept off the menu. Early eggplants were called mala insana, meaning “mad apple,” in the belief they would cause.

Where eggplants thrive

Eggplants like as much sun and heat as they can get and benefit from wind protection. They are sensitive to cool temperatures and shouldn’t be outdoors when night temperatures fall below 12°C: cool temperatures will weaken and stunt plants, and they may not recover. Growing them along a brick wall, which provides reflected warmth and protection from the cool air, is ideal. If the garden location is more exposed, consider providing a temporary stake-and-burlap wind barrier or baffle screen. Eggplants dislike heavy clay, preferring sandy loam amended with organic materials such as peat moss, compost, and composted manure.

Like their tomato cousins, eggplants are thirsty plants and heavy feeders, requiring consistent moisture and regular fertilizing. Surround each plant with a four-centimeter-thick mulch to help conserve moisture in its root zone. Pull back the mulch and spread a handful of granular NPK 5-10-10 fertilizer around each plant every third week, but don’t dig it in, as the roots are shallow. Feed container-grown eggplants with a water-soluble 5-10-10 fertilizer every second week plants may need staking to carry the weight of their berries.

Growing tips

  • Eggplants are sensitive to soil-borne fungal diseases such as verticillium, fusarium fungus (primarily a problem in warm climates) and tobacco mosaic virus. Select hybrid seed with inbred resistance to verticillium wilt, which infects the capillary system. Rotate eggplant location in the garden each year, or grow in containers with the soilless mix to completely eliminate disease risk. (Tobacco smokers can spread mosaic virus on their hands and should wear gloves when touching eggplants.)
  • Start seeds eight weeks prior to planting out they are slow to germinate. Plant several seeds in a 7.5-centimeter pot, one centimeter deep, and keep them warm by setting them near a heat register or on top of a refrigerator until germination occurs. Remove all but the strongest seedling.
  • Young plants need warmth to grow. Try to maintain a temperature between 24 and 27°C, placing seedlings in a warm location with bright light. If seedlings are under grow lights, hang a sheet of plastic film over the unit. A week before planting outside, move the plants to a cool windowsill and cut back their water by one-quarter.
  • Transplant outdoors to a sunny and wind-protected location in mid-June, when weather is consistently mild and warm.
  • Harvest fruit when slightly immature, with smooth, glossy, firm flesh. Use pruners to cut fruit from the woody stems (wear gloves to avoid the sharp prickles on the berry calyx). Continually harvest fruit to encourage more flower production.

Eggplants Also dive After the First True Leaf

Up until the young plants will not get accustomed to the new location, they gauze or newspapers from the bright sun. This culture is responsive to organics: two weeks after pricking the seedlings need to fertilize with solution mullein (infusion of dilute 1:10). The second dressing should be in a week and can be mineral: in a bucket of water dissolve 1 tsp. ammonium nitrate, 3 tbsp. l. superphosphate, and 2 Tsp. potassium sulfate. The third time fertilize the mineral solution, and the dose of phosphorus-potassium fertilizer can be increased and a half to two times. As a result, you get low stocky plants with 7–8 leaves and a strong root system.

Advance every 10 square meters. m beds, intended for eggplant, it is necessary to fill 150 g of ammonium sulfate, 300 g of superphosphate and 150 g of potassium chloride. As well, too, can add humus, but the dose is two times higher than for seedlings of peppers — two handfuls (400g).

Important: The fertilizer should not fall on the leaves, and if this should happen, rinse with warm water.

Modern hybrids
Here are some more modern hybrids, which were developed after the initial breakthrough:

  • ‘Bride’
    58 days, mauve-and-white-striped long, cylindrical 20 x 4 cm
  • ‘Classy Chassis’
    68 days deep purple bell-shaped 20 x 10 cm
  • ‘Ghostbuster’
    80 days pure white cyl. 15-20 cm x 7.5 cm
  • ‘Green Giant Early’
    62 days lime-hued bell-shaped 12-15 cm x 7.5 to 10 cm
  • ‘Italian Pink Bicolor’
    75 days mauve-white bell-shaped 20 x 12 cm
  • ‘Lavender Touch’
    63 days white with a lavender flush cyl. 20 x 7.5 cm
  • ‘Louisiana Long Green’
    65 days lime green long, cyl. 23 x 5 cm
  • ‘Millionaire’
    55 days glossy black long, cyl. 25 cm long x 5 cm wide
  • ‘Neon’
    65 days fuchsia pink with bright green calyx semi-cyl. 20 x 7.5 cm
  • ‘Night Shadow’
    75 days jet-black glossy, teardrop-shaped fruit 20-25 cm x 10 cm
  • ‘Orient Charm’
    65 days fluorescent pink long, cyl. 20-25 cm x 5-7.5 cm
  • ‘Rosita’
    68 days rose pink long, cyl. 20 x 5 cm
  • ‘Zebra’
    70 days purple-and-white-striped teardrop 20 cm x 7.5-10 cm

Modern Hybrids and Container Breeds

Container cultivars

Eggplants are well suited to container growing. Dwarf plants with edible miniature fruit are charming on sunny patios and decks or grown in a pot by the steps.

  • ‘Calliope’ (64 days) is an oval-shaped, white-and-purple-streaked eggplant with a high yield of 7.5- to 10-centimeter-long fruit.
  • Compact ‘Kermit’ (60 days) produces even smaller, round, five-centimeter fruit, with a white blossom end and deep green striped shoulders.
  • ‘Baby Bell’ (also called ‘Bambino’) is a true miniature plant, 25 centimeters tall and ideal for 15-centimeter pots, and produces jet-black, five-centimeter, oval berries in 55 days.
  • ‘Fairy Tale’ (49 days) is a beautiful All-America Selections 2005 winner, growing to 45 centimeters tall with purple-and-white-striped, elongated, 10-centimeter fruit.

Which eggplants taste the best for cooking?

Western European: Globe and elongated pear shapes glossy purple-black creamy dense flesh. Use for stuffing, baking, grilling.

Japanese: Long and slender deep to light purple with greenish patches. Use for stir-frying, grilling, sautéing, pickling.

Chinese: Long and slender brilliant violet sweet flesh. Use for stir-frying, grilling.

Italian: Small and round striking violet streaks and markings white flesh. Use for baking, sautéing, grilling.

Thai: Round, slightly larger than a ping-pong ball tough skin is lavender with green stripes seedy interior strong flavor. Use for curry dishes.

Southeast Asian: Small, grape-sized red, orange, purple or green bitter flavor. Usually made into hot pickles.

African: Egg-shaped mild sweetness inedible, tough, white skin firm white flesh. Use for grilling, stuffing.

Puerto Rican: Elongated oval tender lavender skin mild, white flesh. Use for stir-frying, sautéing.

How to Grow Eggplant Plants

  1. Six to eight weeks before the average last frost in your area, begin to sow eggplant seeds indoors. Keep the seeds in containers in a dark and warm place until the seeds have sprouted. (Germination normally takes 7–10 days). When the seeds have germinated, immediately transfer to a well-lit, south-facing windowsill or under artificial grow lighting. The seedlings will stay here for the next 8–10 weeks, so make sure they're comfortable. Make sure the soil is consistently moist, but never soggy or over watered during this period.
  2. Around the date of the average last frost in your local area, your eggplants can begin the process of hardening off. Over the next two weeks, and of course weather permitting, allow the plants to stay outdoors with increased time intervals each day. Start with an hour at first and slowly increase the intervals until the plants are ready to permanently stay outdoors.
  3. After the eggplant plants have been hardened off, and about two weeks after the average last frost, transplanting outdoors to the final container can be completed. When transplanting, I personally like to amend my potting soil with a bit of bone meal. This adds a great deal of nutrition and—when mixed along with the composted organics in the potting soil—eliminates the need for fertilizing later in the season.
  4. Once the eggplants have been transplanted to their final container, there's little left to do but sit back, wait, and water. Allow the top 2 inches of soil to become dry before thoroughly watering to keep your eggplants happy and healthy.
  5. If you're able to move your containers, try rotating them once a week or so. This ensures that all parts of the plant are offered exposure to sunlight.

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